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10 of the best songs from musicals

Great show tunes stick in the memory like nothing else, becoming household favourites. Here are 10 of our favourite songs from musical theatre – with many more to come...

Best musical songs

Something tells me this list of best musical songs is going to get longer… How do you distill the greatest musicals into just ten of their best show tunes? And what makes a great musical song, well, great? After all, musicals are full of fabulously catchy melodies – whether they’re on this side of the Atlantic in the West End or over the pond on Broadway.

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A great song can creep up on an audience, taking them unawares – an unexpected emotional punch to the stomach, or a moment of sheer exhilaration. They are quite literally ‘show stoppers’, as they incite huge applause or hushed silence. The greatest songs of musical theatre stick in the memory, becoming household favourites, and there are for more than we can ever list here.

Some of the shows referenced here have several big hitting show tunes, making the choice even more difficult. Here’s a starter for ten, though.

 The best musical theatre songs

‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ (from Evita)

Great musical moments can be as much about the setting as they are the song itself. This key moment, from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s take on the life of Eva Perón, sees the wife of the newly-elected President standing on the balcony of their Buenos Aires mansion. With her arms outstretched to her people, she tries to convince them she will work for them and is their champion. It’s a great visual moment, and the song – full of rather vacuous platitudes – is a classic.

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‘Defying Gravity’ (from Wicked)

In a story about how The Wicked Witch of the West earned her name, the standout moment is sure to be exactly that – the moment she realises she simply has to go her own way, embracing her wickedness. This song from Stephen Schwartz’s colourful fantasy starts as a fight between two friends and ends in a declaration of sheer defiance against ‘all of Oz’. It’s the show’s most memorable and epic number, and singing it is an Olympic feat in itself for the lead.

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‘I Dreamed a Dream’ (from Les Misérables)

Poor Fantine, she is at her wits end. She’s had to give up her only child, lost her job, been driven to prostitution, sold her hair (not to mention at least a couple of teeth) and is thoroughly destitute. This song is her emotional lament as she recalls the life she wanted for herself, once upon a time. Here’s an example of a musical with a clutch of showstoppers, but – perhaps – this is the one, the one which leaves the audience more than a little teary.

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‘A Little Priest’ (from Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street)

A bit like the Witch finally embracing her wickedness in Wicked, this moment in Stephen Sondheim’s brilliantly blood-curdling gothic horror is a key turn in the story. It’s the moment the barber, Sweeney Todd – egged on by his landlady, the pie-maker, Mrs Lovett –formulate a plan that will help not only his plot for revenge but her need for fresh meat. It’s a masterclass in lyric writing by Sondheim, as the pair reel off the variety of people they might turn into pies.

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‘Maybe This Time’ (from Cabaret)

No list of great musical numbers would be complete without something by Kander and Ebb – it was a toss-up between this and ‘Cell Block Tango’ from Chicago, by the way. Sally Bowles’s solo number is an emotional high point of the show – a show within a show, how meta. Saying that, it wasn’t written for Cabaret at all and didn’t appear in the original stage version. It actually predates the show by a couple of years and was used in the 1972 film starring Liza Minelli (who had recorded it previously) before being introduced into the stage version in the 1990s. Confused? Anyway, it’s all about love and hoping he’ll stick around, which perfectly underlines what Sally’s going through offstage.

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‘Music of the Night’ (from The Phantom of the Opera)

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom is full of big numbers, but this moment is one of the most captivating. The song is used by the Phantom to hypnotise Chistine, who he has just dragged down into his lair – okay, that seems a bit dodgy now I’m reading it. But it’s more about soothing her and mostly about the power of music.

It’s also a moment for the audience to take a breath after what is a rather relentless and colourful opening set of scenes. This is the Phantom’s first proper scene, no longer a disembodied voice or face in the mirror. Spoiler alert: he’s not actually a ghost, he’s just a misunderstood man with a facial disfigurement and a big heart… oh, and a murderous streak.

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‘My Favourite Things’ (from The Sound of Music)

Who doesn’t know this song?! Fraulein Maria, newly-appointed Governess to the Von Trapp children, cavorts around a bedroom trying to distract the young’uns during a scary thunderstorm. But who does know that in the stage version, the song first appears earlier in the story, sung by the Mother Abbess to calm Maria herself before she heads out into the world? It’s a brilliant song with wonderfully memorable music and words by Rodgers and Hammerstein. That said, I’m sure today’s children could think of a different list – I’m not sure a bright copper kettle would do it for many. Whiskers on Kittens, though…

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‘People Will Say We’re in Love’ (from Oklahoma!)

We’re sticking with Rodgers and Hammerstein for this next one – they were sure to be in the list more than once when you think of the amount they wrote. Maybe there are bigger, better songs than this in Oklahoma, but what a tune! Curly and Ado Annie sing this number, and it’s good fun, because you know that, in the end, they really will be in love. They spend most of the story running rings around each other, but he’s hers and she’s his even if they won’t admit it until later in the show. Oh and it was also, apparently, a favourite song of HM The Queen and the late Prince Philip.

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‘Somewhere’ (from West Side Story)

Let’s be fair, this West Side Story has a lot of great songs.  I mean, hello? ‘Maria’, ‘America’, ‘Tonight’… This one, though, has more emotional resonance than any other in the story.

In both the stage show and film it’s what Maria sings as Tony lies dying in her arms, though in the film it has a bigger moment between the star-crossed lovers  earlier on, as they come to terms with the fact that Tony has killed Maria’s brother. It does appear earlier in the stage version, too, but with a much less explicitly narrative function. Beyond West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Somewhere’ has taken on its own life as something of an anthem for ‘things will get better’.

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‘You Can’t Stop the Beat’ (from Hairspray)

You’ve got to end on a high, and this number from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s Hairspray does just that. After young Tracy Turnblad has beaten her adversaries at the, frankly racist, TV station, everyone lets their hair down (despite the amount of product) for this massively infectious song-and-dance number. The ‘beat’ in question is of course progress… progress has to happen, change is good and whatever your size, colour or friendly persuasion, you’re a part of the world and you deserve to be loved and accepted. Can I get an amen?

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